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TERRY GROSS, host:

British screenwriter and director, Mike Leigh, who made "Vera Drake," "Topsy-Turvy," and "Secrets and Lies," has a new film called "Happy-Go-Lucky." It stars Sally Hawkins as a blithe 30-year-old London school teacher and Eddie Marson as her driving instructor. At this year's Berlin Film Festival, Hawkins won the Best Actress prize, and at the Norwegian International Film Festival, Leigh won the Bringer of Joy award. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: As Poppy, the heroine of Mike Leigh's marvelous "Happy-Go-Lucky," Sally Hawkins is slim and cute, with a mouthful of big English teeth and supernaturally perky. She's so buoyant, it's as if gravity to her is just a suggestion. A London schoolteacher, Poppy is a glass-half-full kind of person.

In a bookstore, she attempts to engage the young man behind the register, tries again when he fails to respond, and finally gives up. She might have concluded he's a jerk. Instead, she gives a sigh and says, oh well, someone's having a bad day. When she emerges from the store to find her bike has been stolen, she does have a moment of melancholy. She says, I didn't get to say goodbye. Then she decides this is her opportunity to learn to drive.

The question Leigh implicitly poses is whether Poppy is fatuously happy, whether her take-it-as-it-comes, go-along-to-get-along cheerfulness is simply simpleminded. I'm delighted to say this isn't the case, but her worldview will certainly be tested. Leigh's theme is a classic one, the possibility of enchantment in a world that can be ugly and threatening. Examples range from the aptly named Disney film "Enchanted" to the Bozo-Goes-to-Buchenwald horror show "Life is Beautiful."

Poppy lives with her kid sister and a gal-pal, and there's a lot of bustle at the movie's margins. But the spine of the film is a series of five driving lessons with an instructor named Scott, played by Eddie Marson. Marson has a head that looks too big for his smallish body and a puttyish face that could probably seem congenial in a Seven Dwarfs kind of way but is here tense and gargoyle-like. Scott is a control freak, and in their first lesson, Poppy's giggles bring out the English schoolmaster in him.

Mr. EDDIE MARSON: (As Scott) OK. You see three pedals in front of you.

Ms. SALLY HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Yeah.

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) Will you please put your left foot on the left hand pedal and push it all the way down.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Oh, he's a bit frisky isn't he?

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) OK Pauline, please take your boot off the pedal.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Nobody has called me Pauline since I was two years old. Makes me laugh...

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) What am I supposed to call you?

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) How about Poppy?

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) Poppy?

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Yeah. Whatever turns you on, Scott. I don't mind.

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) OK Poppy. Your boots are inappropriate for a driving lesson.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Why, what's wrong with them?

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) You can't control the car in high heels.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) No, I can do a lot of things in this. You should see me in these babies on the dance floor.

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) Well, it may be good in a dance floor.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) No, just good on the dance floor, they are...

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) They may be good in a pink Cadillac on a beach when you're pissed with your boyfriend, but they're not suitable for driving.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) You're funny.

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) Now, next week, I want you to bring flat sole shoes.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) I don't look good any good in them.

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) I don't care how you look. It's how you drive.

Ms. HAWKINS: (As Poppy) Oh, I'll see what I can russle up for you, Scott. Leave it to me.

Mr. MARSON: (As Scott) Good.

EDELSTEIN: Leigh builds his screenplays through actors' improvisations, and he reportedly lay in the backseat of the car as Hawkins and Marson drove around and developed their rapport. Their performances are riveting. Poppy responds to Scott's orders with tongue-in-cheek exclamations of obedience, as if she thinks he has a sense of humor about himself. But Poppy's teasing doesn't lead to his loosening up, as in screwball comedy. No, he becomes angrier. He has road rage. He delivers tirades about the dangers of multiculturalism. To Leigh, he embodies a kind of burgeoning fascism, and if the early driving lessons are hilarious, the middle ones have notes of dissonance. By the end, they're unnerving bordering on scary.

Poppy's worldview is tested in other ways - by a boy misbehaving in class who turns out to have been abused and by her younger sister's domineering boyfriend. But Leigh takes the movie's look and tempo from her spirit.

The colors in Poppy's London pop, the reds and greens and blues are so vivid they make "Happy-Go-Lucky" seem larky in spite of everything. It's a beautiful balance. Of all Leigh's many films, this is the easiest, the least labored. It dawns on us slowly that Poppy's is not a life of whimsy but a design for living that's deep and hard-won. Sally Hawkins is so effervescent that after the film ended, I worried about her. It must have been so sad to leave Poppy behind. But I'd like to think Poppy will always be there in spirit. I think she'll make you want to cultivate your own inner Poppy.

GROSS: David Edelstein is a film critic for New York Magazine.

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